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Archive for July 2010

Improving how we talk about race; more on the Sherrod story

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The Shirley Sherrod story continues to generate excellent commentaries on why we have so much trouble talking about race. Interestingly, what emerges from these reflections is that some of the key dynamics shaping the story have little to do with race directly. Obama himself, perhaps not surprisingly, emphasizes this in blaming our “media culture” for the hysteria. John Harris and Jim VandeHei, writing for Politic.com, see the story as representing “the new normal” in the most recent phase of “nonstop ideological war,” one fueled by “the emergence of an industry—a political-media complex—for which ideological conflict is central to the business model.” Rem Riedder, editor of American Journalism Review, claims the “lessons of the Shirley Sherrod fiasco” are for journalists “to slow down, to check things out, to get the full story before posting or publishing or acting.” In this light, we can see a thread here that links back to other sensational stories like the nooses in Jena, LA, and the Duke rape case. In this view, the racial component of the story is almost a subplot. Even Eugene Robinson’s scathing assessment of race-baiting in this story—“these allegations of anti-white racism are being deliberately hyped and exaggerated because they are designed to make whites fearful”—acknowledges the partisan dynamic at work here: “this is really about tearing down Barack Obama.” So is it about left and right, rather than black and white?

Recognizing the ostensibly non-racial component of race stories is important to understanding how our “national conversation” on race does and does not work. Certainly, we have to acknowledge a primary characteristic of public discussions of race: it is manipulated to score political points. But race only carries this potential because it remains a taboo topic. I use “taboo” here in the technical sense of the term in anthropology, to characterize the belief that contact with a prohibited object means something bad will happen. This is well-illustrated with anxious references to “the n-word,” and it is certainly on display with the rapid firing and subsequent frantic effort to rehire Sherrod. Matt Bai, in putting this story in a larger context of U.S. political discourse, asks: “Why haven’t we moved beyond the old, stultifying debate in the age of Obama?” Part of the answer is that we’ve yet to recognize that this requires a double process, simultaneously grappling with our culture-bound anxieties about race while also understanding how they fuel partisan jousting. Additionally, we have to understand another larger dynamic at work here lies in the shifting line between private and public in American life, and how this, in turn, draws on fraught concerns over the changing contours of the “mainstream” of public discourse. More on that soon.


Written by jhartiganj

July 26, 2010 at 4:27 pm

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It wasn’t supposed to be like this

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In Philadelphia in March of 2008, Barack Obama’s superb speech on race impressively seemed to create an opportunity for Americans to talk differently about racial matters. The speech and the intense national coverage it generated suggested that a fundamental change was occurring—instead of being a furtive, almost illicit subject, referenced largely by innuendo and manipulated via “code words,” race became a direct object of discussion. Specifically, Obama sought to engage whites by offering them a respite, of sorts, from blanket charges of racism by refusing to label the lingering “resentments of white Americans” as “misguided or even racist without recognizing they are grounded in legitimate concerns.” That he eventually was elected, too, even more strongly indicated we were entering a new stage in our “national conversation on race.” Perhaps we were at last becoming “post-racial.” But the story of Shirley Sherrod suggests very little has changed after all.

Obama’s Philadelphia speech offered more than just a new position on ongoing efforts to understand the role of racism in U.S. society; it modeled a way to talk about race—calmly, in measured and considered fashion. But that model was nowhere to be seen in the administration’s reaction to drama around Shirley Sherrod. The knee-jerk reaction to fire her—unconscionably supported initially by the NAACP—demonstrated, rather, everything that was wrong about the ways Americans were used to talking about race. That is, do whatever it takes to keep race from coming up at all; and, if it does, respond with severity to this breach of public decorum by casting out the transgressor. The administration’s response aimed strictly to restore racial etiquette, rather than regarding race as something we have to calmly consider and think about.

Written by jhartiganj

July 22, 2010 at 7:58 pm

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The Problem with Racial Remarks: The Case of Shirley Sherrod

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Just in: another example of how dangerous it is to talk about race today? On Monday, Shirley Sherrod was compelled to resign from her position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the Georgia State Director of Rural Development because a video clip of her words was whipsawing around the web. Initially posted by Andrew Breitbart (who also circulated the videos that led to the downfall of Acorn), the clip seemed to reveal Sherrod practicing reverse racism by denying a white farmer “the full force of what I could do” in helping him stave off foreclosure on the family farm. Sherrod noted that the white farmer “was talking all the time trying to show me he was superior to me,” so she did only “enough so that when he” went back to USDA officials he would “report that I did try to help him.” But all the while she “was struggling with the fact that so many black people had lost their farm land, and here I was faced with having to help a white person save their land.” She resolved the matter, initially, by delivering the farmer to a white lawyer, so “that his own kind would take care of him.”

It wasn’t simply the remarks, but the media context in which they appeared that made the story compelling. The recording itself, after all, was almost four months old; and she was telling a story about an event that happened 24 years ago while she was working with a nonprofit organization—not when she was in her current role with the USDA. But the clip was targeted towards a heated public exchange between the NAACP and the Tea Party, one informed by earlier conservative complaints over a Justice Department decision not to pursue a voter intimidation case against some members of the New Black Panthers in Philadelphia. As we know, context is everything, but that’s what is so difficult to grasp in this case: both with the initial remarks, because of the cynical way in which the clip was edited, and also with the anxious-making spotlight in which this discussion about race was unfolding.

Many of the problems that plague and complicate our “national conversation on race” are on display in this story. Obviously, there’s the interested, distorting circulation of the remarks, in the first place. But just as troubling is the anxiety that lead both the Department of Agriculture and the NAACP initially to condemn Sherrod. Yet the deepest problem here is a cultural one—whether conservative or liberal, we are intensely conditioned to look for race primarily in remarks. This is generally how we discuss race in public, typically as the words of some celebrity make the rounds of the blogs and news shows. We purvey remarks as the embodiment of an individual’s racial sensibilities, often asking if they also reflect the breadth and depth of racism in the nation at large. In doing so, we are generally oblivious, first, to the context in which remarks were made and, secondly, to the larger ambit of what the person was saying at the time. This cultural conditioning is justified in many ways—we’re all short on time and little nuggets of speech often can be revealing. But because of this conditioning, in Sherrod’s case, we missed what is so important for people to hear today.

Sherrod, after all, was telling a story of how her thinking about race changed. As her narrative unfolded, Sherrod related how she came to examine her own prejudices and recognized that class mattered more than race, realizing that poverty crosscuts racial differences. These kinds of stories matter a great deal for Americans now as we grapple with the changing meanings and relevance of race. But how are we going to share these if we have to be so on guard against the distortions of selective edits and over-anxious responses? Sherrod’s stories—both the one she was telling back in March and the one that’s unfolding in the media now—are an opportunity for us all to adopt a different stance towards listening for race. The key here is to move beyond parsing particular remarks with the expectations that they will reveal some deep-seated racist sensibility. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that people actively think about race, and that, in doing so, their thinking sometimes changes and evolves. That’s what we need to learn from this story.

Written by jhartiganj

July 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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Belated last glimpse at World Cup

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The race stories are cropping up so fast and furious I can barely keep up. The DNA-family searches, renewed attention to the “white vote,” and the California Conference of the NAACP’s support for decriminalizing marijuana are just a few of the “to get to” developments. But before I do, I’ll take one last, belated look at how the World Cup played into (and perhaps broadened) our “national conversation on race,” especially in relation to Mexico and France.

First, it’s a bit surprising that there wasn’t more discussion of race during the cup, given its South African setting. As Roger Cohen noted in the NY Times, “South Africa is a country where race is not the subtext of existence. It’s the text.” In that sense, it provides a plethora of opportunities for taking stock of when, how, and why race still matters. Almost 80% black and grappling still with the challenges of post-apartheid politics and economics (they don’t seem to use “post-racial” the way we do, A[fter] O[bama]), the country is a huge proving ground for the future of race. But there seems to have been little discussion of race in South Africa, and when the subject was addressed at all it was largely in terms of the slew of racist taunts and attitudes among European fans. I only noticed Nancy Armor’s account (for AP) of white reactions to black/immigrant players in Europe. Despite watching maybe a dozen games, I never managed to catch a glimpse of the “Football Against Racism” logo that covered each field’s center circle until just before kickoff, nor did I hear any readings of the “declaration against racism” over the public-address system before the matches. When I searched “race and the world cup,” most of the hits referenced the race for ratings.

Anthropologist Matthew Durington maintained a steady attention to the dynamics around ethnicity on the blog, Savage Minds. Drawing on John and Jean Comaroff’s book, Ethnicity, Inc., as well as his own ethnographic work in South Africa, Durington analyzed the work of cultural commodification via forms of ethnic federation related to the games—in terms of marketing and advertizing, but also various types of ethno-tourism in South Africa. He sounds these out for their anxious-making mix of enrichment and entrapment, inclusion and exclusion. In particular, he spotlighted the “Bud House” as a spectacle blending “nationalism and ethnicity in a quasi-competition linked to individual teams that reflects the annihilate side for this visual anthropologist and it is this side of Ethnicity, Inc. that scares me.” Durington also discussed how “ethnotainment” plays in complex ways into an “entrepreneurial spirit in a very neoliberal South Africa.”

The most “global” discussion about race almost certainly was linked to the vitriol and angst over the French team, which keyed explicitly on race. It was hard to mix the racial subtext in French politicians’ slur-filled diatribes against black and immigrant players on the national team. The team’s poor showing provided a screen by which whites animatedly read the failure as reflecting the hopelessness of racial integration in France. But just as interesting was the effort to analyze this public discourse. The LA Times covered this angle in a story in late June, featuring assessments from analysts there, which offer interesting parallels to how “national conversations” are evaluated in other countries.

“”Nobody has said anything openly racist, yet,” said sociologist Jacques Tarnero, who studies racism. However, the risk of tipping into xenophobia comes up when the French team is associated with the problems of the French ghettoes. It could confuse the public, he said.”

As in the U.S., at work here is an effort to gauge when/how remarks become more than just racially “revealing” or “tinged” to be judged certifiably “racist.” I find the idea that these comments could somehow “confuse the public” to be amusing, as if “the public” hasn’t already generated a huge volume of blatantly racist remarks at the soccer matches. Tarnero’s assessment tries to maintain an intriguing line between culture and race: “The debate is a trap,” said Tarnero. “You should be able to say that there are cultural problems” in the suburb “without being accused of racism.”

A far more scathing assessment is offered by my dear colleague John Hoberman, who concludes that media coverage and the political turmoil linked to the team “is best explained as post-colonial drama, as indispensible black talent confronted the white authority figure whose job it was to keep them under control.” Hoberman tracks how the debate reflects a stark shift in public discourse on race in France: “But after the mostly black French soccer team’s defiance of its white leaders in South Africa, Le Pen’s racist critique of multiracial sport has entered the French political mainstream with a vengeance.” As well, Hoberman argues that what we witness here is the way developments in one cultural arena affect larger social discourses and debates. That is, the arena of sports becomes a screen for evaluating the politics of integration: “Consequently, the failure of France’s ‘black’ team has made the success of multiracial integration seem superficial.” Most importantly, Hoberman develops a comparative national perspective and points to the role of contingency in such discussions. Case in point: Germany, where there has been “a lot of public interest in the ethnicity of their World Cup representatives, but this curiosity is still under control. Germany’s postwar inhibitions about racial chauvinism rule out official abuse, à la française.” Common in both countries, and throughout Europe, is the immense symbolic importance that sports teams hold and the underlying post-colonial, racial dynamics that make them variously, uneasily representative of national as well as transnational collective identities. The important contingency: the Germans were largely victorious while the French were ingloriously defeated, and that makes a huge difference to how people regard the prospects of integration.

This comparative view on national discourses on race was most developed, though, in a late-breaking discussion between the U.S. and Mexico. This was generated by a July 5th story by Tracy Wilkinson in the LA Times about an incredibly popular morning TV show in Mexico that featured  in their World Cup coverage (behind the official hosts) “actors in blackface makeup, dressed in fake animal skins and wild ‘Afro’ wigs, gyrate, wave spears and pretend to represent a cartoonish version of South Africa.” While to American eyes this display seems manifestly racist, Mexicans had their doubts; as Wilkinson reports, “Many Mexicans will say they are not racist and that very little racism exists in Mexico, a nation, after all, of mestizos, who are of European and indigenous blood.” Wilkinson argued the counter point, “that racism is alive and well in Mexico,” though noting that “it is primarily directed at indigenous communities.” And the debate was sparked. Her story drew over 250 comments, many in Spanish and many arguing that Americans were missing the real story. How can people in the U.S. be hurling accusations at Mexico when the state of Arizona just passed a law that appears to encourage racial profiling by police concerning illegal immigrants? But there were also plenty of testimony as to the breadth and extent of racism in Mexico, as well as in the U.S.

This is a debate that will likely find more opportunities to percolate over the years ahead. What’s interesting is to consider journalists roles in extending their evaluations of the “national conversation on race” in the U.S. to public discourse in Mexico. Much as they do with racial comments in the U.S., journalists contextualized this incident with ones in the not too distant past. In particular, they pointed to Vicente Fox’s comments in 2005 about Mexican immigrants “doing work that even blacks won’t do,” and the dust-up over the Memin Pinguin stamp with its buffoonishly caricatured blackface features. I am curious to see whether this role for journalists will develop in a transnational framework, extending the boundaries of the “national conversation.” Judging from the array of comments this story generated we’re going to need an additional anthropological perspective on the role of culture in such comparative discussions.

Written by jhartiganj

July 18, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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NAACP and the Tea Party: Diagnosing the Relevance of Race

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In the past year, a somewhat clearer image of the Tea Party movement has come into focus. After waves of vivid yet anecdotal glimpses in the news of these angry conservative, we gained a more quantified picture via a survey by the New York Times that revealed them to be almost 90% white, predominantly male, and generally better off economically than the nation at large. The significance of their whiteness has been a fluctuating topic of discussion, now drawn sharply into view by the NAACP’s resolution, passed on Tuesday at their 101st annual convention, condemning “bigoted elements within the Tea Party.” Not surprisingly, whites associated with the movement have responded animatedly to the resolution. Most prominently, Sarah Palin decried it as a “spurious charge of racism,” construing it as “false, appalling, and is a regressive and diversionary tactic to change the subject at hand.”

But what is “the subject at hand” when it comes to the Tea Party? Overwhelmingly, its supporters maintain their concerns are economic and linked to the liberal orientation of the Obama administration. Yet it is hard not to recognize a racial texture to these concerns, given that they are so keenly tied to the nation’s first African-American president. Many commentators have parsed their public statements looking for evidence of racial animus, yet, as whites so often do, members have steadfastly insisted that this is not about race. So how do we talk about the potential racial dimensions of this movement, and is “racism” the best way to characterize them? These questions concern more than the Tea Party; they relate, as well, to our public culture broadly as try to make sense of how race matter—now, in the past, and in the future.

This question is challenging because we still tend to think of race and racism as a clear cut, black and white matter. People either are racist or they’re not, and as Palin observed, “All decent Americans abhor racism.” That does not leave much room, then, for talking about possible roles for race that might not manifest in stark absolutes. The problem is evident even in the NAACP’s resolution, which they have not formally released yet, pending its passage by their National Board of Directors in a meeting scheduled for October in Baltimore, MD. Fixating on an incident in March when members of the Congressional Black Caucus were accosted with racial epithets by demonstrators at a Tea Party demonstration, the resolution asks these people “to repudiate the racist elements and activities of the Tea Party.” But what do Tea Party members here when confronted by such charges?

The St. Louis Tea Party Coalition responded to the NAACP’s resolution by construing it as “condemn[ing] 20 million tea party activists as racists.” This is absolutely not what the NAACP charged, but it does illustrate the crux of the problem. Whites who are mobilizing under the auspices of the Tea Party need to recognize what is so glaringly obvious to people outside the movement: that their whiteness matters to their political stance. Not just their color, but their general age (the majority are over 45 years old and almost thirty percent are 64 or older) link them to a time in this country when public and political life was much less diverse. Their positions and perspectives reflect a sense of loss of representation and a deep anxiety about the future. Is this racist? Not necessarily, but race certainly does shape their sentiments. The challenge—not just for the Tea Party, but for the NAACP and the rest of us as well—is to find a way to talk about the ways race matter here without assuming that it can only come down to racism.

One of the best ways to proceed is to start talking about whiteness more frequently. Arguably, the greatest privilege that whites retain in this country is the ability to assume that race is not something that matters to them personally. This is why it can be so shocking for whites to encounter charges of racism. And this is where discussion of the Tea Party could take a different turn. Instead of taking offense and launching counter charges of bigotry, participants in the Tea Party need to take stock of how and why race may shape their perspectives, anxieties, and deeply emotional oppositional stances. Whether they are racist or not, race is part of how they see and experience the world. Being cognizant of this is a key step for all whites who find themselves angry about where this country seems to be going.

Written by jhartiganj

July 14, 2010 at 8:13 pm

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Mel Gibson & Samir Shabazz

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Wow, it’s shaping up to be a busy summer with our “national conversation on race.” The stories just keep coming fast and furious, with the two most recent ones effectively bookending the range of comments currently being purveyed in public culture. Alongside Mel Gibson’s tirade imaging his ex-girlfriend being “raped by a pack of niggers” for dressing provocatively, we also have the heated debate over whether taunts of “cracker” and “white devil” allegedly hurled by members of the New Black Panthers outside of a Philadelphia polling place constitute voter intimidation.

This pair of stories somewhat contrarily suggest either that nothing has changed (e.g. Mel Gibson) or that, rather, everything has changed now that white “crackers” can “see what it is like to be ruled by a black man.” Either way, taken separately or in tandem, these incidents convey that the “post racial” future many imagined would arrive with the election of Barack Obama is a far stranger land than anticipated. But they also each reflect that Americans are still 1) raptly attuned to the relevance of race and 2) listen in a fairly informed manner, in the sense that new incidents are consistently referenced to our extensive, detailed public record on race.

Whatever “post racial” may come to mean—perhaps like “postmodernism,” it will signify a reconfiguration rather than a complete effacement of its core referent—race remains a central topic of conversation for Americans as we struggle to figure out how and why it continues to matter so much. With this blog, I’ll aim to update the basic perspective offered in my book, What Can You Say?, which provides a fundamental orientation to how this “national conversation on race” works. Despite a widespread belief that, suddenly, race would be “over” once Obama took office, we continue to be both intrigued and muddled by racial matters. But at least we’re still talking about it.

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July 13, 2010 at 8:30 pm

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